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Saturday, May 30, 2020

No sanctions for anthropology instructor who used slur in lecture

By Esther Chong and Stella Harvey

An anthropology instructor who used the N-word in class and was reported to the Equal Opportunity Office in 2017 continues to teach the course where he said the slur. As of 2019, three informal EOO reports have been filed about Paul James’ language and conduct in class. Each report is now closed. James continues to teach the same class at Western, but students who reported the instructor said they wish stronger action had been taken.

James is a senior instructor who began teaching at Western in 2005. He said he studied as an undergraduate at Western in the ‘90s, and currently teaches one class, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, a lecture-style course with about 180 students each quarter.

Camilla Mejia, former Ethnic Student Center education coordinator and current Associated Students Vice President for Diversity, emailed an incident report to the EOO in October 2017 after she witnessed James use the slur in class. According to the report, on Oct. 16, 2017, during his lecture James referenced a video of an incident on a New York subway where a white man repeatedly yelled the N-word at Black passengers. According to Mejia’s report, James said the racial slur while discussing the video.

Mejia said she was shocked to hear her professor use the slur confidently and without hesitation.

“You’re not black, you should not be saying that word,” Mejia recalled saying to James.

She said the incident made her feel so uncomfortable, she decided to withdraw from the course.

“I had the opportunity to drop the class, but what about the [students] that don’t?” Mejia said. “I ended up getting a W on my transcript. That’s the only W I have ever gotten.”

After that class, Mejia felt shocked and uncomfortable. She said she decided to write to the EOO through her work email, hoping it would have more impact coming from her position in the ESC as an advocate for students of color.

According to an EOO meeting transcript on Oct. 31, 2017, Vice Provost for Equal Opportunity and Employment Diversity Sue Guenter-Schlesinger informed James about the harm he could cause by using the N-word in his large lecture course and strongly advised against using the slur. She also explained that the EOO did not want to infringe on his academic freedom as a professor, the meeting transcript said.

Following the 2017 EOO incident report, James said he issued an apology to his class via a Canvas announcement and a separate apology via email to Mejia. James has since committed to stop using the N-word in class, he said. James also said he holds more in-class discussions on hate speech and the benefits of reappropriating and re-defining words.

James said understanding the nuances and reappropriation of the N-word is worth understanding, but comes with uncomfortable conversations. The textbook used for the course uses both the phrase “the N-word” and the full slur when discussing the word’s historical significance, James said.

“There [are] many variances of the N-word and those details matter,” James said. “That is the reason that I would articulate the full word, to differentiate the different uses. It’s in cases where saying the phrase ‘the N-word’ is insufficient in communicating what we are really talking about.”

Anthropology Department Chair Todd Koetje said the department sees no reason to use the full N-word in class. He said the anthropology faculty believe its use can be harmful and can get in the way of their educational goals, and while he agrees discussing the context and uses of hate speech is important, it is not necessary to use a harmful slur.

According to James, after apologizing to the class, two students, one who identifies as Black and the other as African-American, came to him after class. James said the students expressed their support for the way he was teaching about hate speech.

James said he chooses not to use trigger warnings in class or over email before he lectures about sensitive topics. He said he believes the university classroom is an appropriate venue for students to learn coping mechanisms for the trauma that exists in the world.

The study of cultural anthropology includes the discussion of sensitive subjects such as hate speech, consent and warfare violence, James said. To prepare students for these discussions, James said he includes a disclaimer in his syllabus that the class goes over in the first week of the quarter.

Koetje said the anthropology department does not have a set policy about instructors using trigger warnings.

Mejia said she thinks the incident with James stems from the larger issues of systematic racism on Western’s campus. Zi Zhang, a student who took James’ class his first quarter at Western in 2013, said he thinks the colonial origin of anthropology is another reason this is a significant incident.

“The framework [of anthropology] has a very white colonial foundation. It’s from a white professor’s point of view [and] there’s a big power difference in that relationship,” Zhang said. “A framework of truth and reconciliation and being transparent and accountable will be beneficial to the department. It’s a value for students.”  

Koetje acknowledged these colonial ties in an email.

“Historically, anthropology as a field of study was associated with and used by European powers in colonizing various parts of the world. We point out and acknowledge that every time we teach the history of the discipline in any class,” he said.

After the 2017 EOO report was completed, Mejia felt the university could have done more. “What kind of safe space are you creating by allowing your professors to use this type of language in class? If you’re not constantly and actively putting it into practice, your words mean nothing.”

While James’ informal EOO report was closed in 2017, a similar incident occurred at Augsburg University, a small private liberal arts college in Minneapolis, when a professor was suspended after using the N-word in a class discussion, according to reporting by The Echo, Augsburg University’s student-produced newspaper.

According to The Echo, on Oct. 30, 2018 professor Phil Adamo read the N-word out loud and then asked the class if it was appropriate to say the slur if it is in text. On Nov. 1, student activists came to the class to ask Adamo about his use of the N-word and posted a recording of the conversation on Facebook.

According to a statement by Augsburg University, after they received reports from several students on Oct. 31, 2018, the university opened an investigation into the incident. In January, they decided an informal resolution would not be sufficient for finding an appropriate resolution, so Augsburg’s chief academic officer began the formal resolution process, which is currently underway.

Adamo has been removed as Honors Director and a professor in the Honors Program pending review of the incident, according to The Echo’s Senior News Editor Kristian Evans.

On Dec. 7, The Echo published a letter from Augsburg Faculty Senate President Milda Hedblom which stated five actions the senate would take in response to Adamo’s behavior. Actions included faculty members working to increase their understanding of privilege and power, advocating for student-led initiatives supporting diversity, equity and inclusion and collaborating with Multicultural Student Services. Adamo was among the faculty who signed the letter.

Before the EOO report in October 2017, James was the subject of two other informal reports, filed in 2015 and 2016 respectively. In those cases, he was either not contacted by the EOO or only asked to reach out to students to apologize.

A former student filed a separate EOO report in October 2015. The former student, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that James used sexual language and innuendos on multiple occasions in and out of class.

When asked about specific phrases students reported he said, James denied all allegations.

A separate incident following an EOO report was filed in February 2016. A student felt James did not give them enough time to explain their point of view in class and felt they were made to look racist after a classmate disagreed with them during a discussion.

According to the EOO report, James reached out to the student via email and thanked them for sharing their point of view both in class and through their email to the EOO.

According to EOO documents, the resolution to Mejia’s informal report was for James to apologize to his class, apologize to Mejia and commit to not using the N-word in class from then on.

“I don’t need an apology, I need you to change your behavior,” Mejia said. “You can provide context accurately and provide information without saying these super offensive racial slurs,” Mejia said. “It’s possible. It’s been done before.”

James said he has refrained from saying the slur in class since 2017.

“In fall of 2017, was that the only time I ever used that word? No.” he said. “The resolution in the classroom was my apology and then a follow-up conversation with African-American students where they shared their views with me. The longer-term resolution was to choose not to use the full N-word.”

James said he dedicated two hours of classroom discussion following the student sit-in in President Randhawa’s office on Dec. 4, 2018. During the student-led sit-in and community forum, students raised concerns about the lack of action taken by Western and the EOO following James’ case. James was not aware of this fact.

“I wish this was as simple as me saying I made a mistake with word choice. However, it is not that simple,” James said. “There is real tension with how we address racism on campus and in our lives and it’s worth spending some time to understand that.”

The Western Front asked the EOO for comment and were referred to Paul Cocke, Western’s director of communications and marketing, on Jan. 31. Cocke said that due to the fact that these were informal complaints, sanctions could not have occurred as a result per EOO policy.

“Informal resolutions do not result in a finding of whether or not discrimination occurred or whether university policy was violated,” Cocke said in an email. “At any point in the process, an individual may inform the EOO that the situation is resolved, that no further university action is desired, or that they are not satisfied with the informal resolution and would like to file a formal complaint.”

This article was updated on Feb. 6 to correct The Echo’s Senior News Editor’s name, Kristian Evans.

This article was updated on Feb. 9 to clarify that Paul James was not asked to apologize to the former student following the filing of their EOO report in 2015. It was also updated to add responses from Paul Cocke, which originally were not received before deadline on Feb. 2. 


  1. Now let’s start taking action people who say “the n-word.” It’s just as triggering, because it is a direct reference and it calls the word in question into our consciousness. A class where a white professor casually says “the n-word,” with the assumption that they can manifest the toxic content of that word upon the listener without actually being held responsible for doing so, is just as unsafe an environment as one where a white professor actually speaks the word itself aloud. They must be held accountable for this abuse.

    • While I agree that the phrase “the n-word” can manifest similar toxicity as the use of the phrase I have to wonder, how can we understand and reconcile with past injustices if we can’t directly address or reference them?

  2. A slur is a word used to insult or disparage. As I clearly shared in the Western Front interview, I have never used the n-word as a slur or to insult or disparage anyone.
    The n-word is part of American culture from Norman Rockwell’s 1960’s depiction of Ruby Bridges, to Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album. In my cultural anthropology course we engage, build understanding through discussion, then deconstruct the layers of meaning and build from our understanding a more resilient culture that reduces the harm of racism and discrimination through individual and collective thoughts and actions. That discussion, of how we can individually and collectively change racism, is the conversation we were having in 2017.
    Since 2017, and in all but 3 instances prior, I gloss the word as “the n-word”. I do this based on my personal life experiences and understanding, that stems from attending a majority Black elementary school as a child, and from my close relationships with Black and African American friends and family.
    In response to a suggestion that I continue to say the n-word, I have not. In lecture, I do use several n words, Negra (the nickname of a Bolivian collaborator), nêga (Portugese gloss from textbook), Niger (country/river), Negara (Geertz’ book about the Balinese state). I don’t believe that these terms warrant censoring.
    I support President Sabah Randhawa’s ongoing efforts on equity and inclusion. As we participate in these it is important to speak, it is also important to listen. On this topic, I continue to listen, specifically to my Black and African American students. I remain committed to doing better.

  3. Using the slur in an educational context (i.e. to inform or demonstrate a point/principal as opposed to it being directed at an individual or group in a derogatory manner) should not be a cause to punish. If the word is included in the printed materials it should be open for reasoned discussion. I find it interesting that Mejia also claims there is “systemic racism” on Western’s campus. An opinion for which no facts or proof is offered.


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